Michael Arnzen, Licker (Novello Publishers, 2006)
I blew through Michael Arnzen’s novella Licker in less than a day, something that is increasingly rare for me these days given the decreased amount of reading time I have per day (to be fair, this is my fault. I blame Netflix). That’s not just a testament to the book’s abbreviated (112pp.) length. I was familiar with Arnzen through Dying, a limited-edition poetry chap that is very funny indeed, and I was expecting more of the same here. I didn’t get it, in that where Dying is very clever and subtle about its humor, Licker is about as clever and subtle as a piece of rebar to the back of your skull. That makes it no less funny.
Plot: Robert is a socially-awkward high school student, socially awkward not least because of a half-score of oozing lesions on his tongue. As we open he’s hanging out at a travelling carnival because, we soon find out, he’s just managed to land his first date. With a cheerleader, no less. The two get romantically entangled on the Ferris wheel, after which the lovely lass goes seemingly insane, jumps from the car, and plunges to her death. That would be traumatizing enough, but a seemingly-helpful carny, under the guise of helping Robert avoid the cops, kidnaps him and tosses him into a cage. The carny doctor examines the lesions and does a little testing, while Robert gets to know the very weird underside of the carnival. When the doctor returns with his findings, well, that’s when things get really weird.
I’ve never seen Arnzen associated with the bizarro movement, but Licker is a pitch-perfect bizarro book in many ways, both in its strengths—this thing is just flat-out weird, to the point where you have to ask yourself what Arnzen was ingesting when he came up with this ridiculousness (Jeff Strand, in his amusing introduction, offers a few possibilities)—but it also has some of bizarro’s weaknesses. The most notable, and I think I’ve probably said this in every bizarro review I’ve ever written that was not of a Carlton Mellick book, is that it’s too damn short. The real meat of this story could have been after Robert finds himself behind the scenes; there’s all kinds of material to be mined in the characters’ interrelationships and how Robert’s presence changes things. If Arnzen ever decides to expand this into a full novel, I’ll be first in line to buy it. Same goes if there’s ever a full-length sequel, which would not be outside the realm of possibility. Though every time I say something like that I feel the need to rush to add that this is perfectly capable of standing on its own. I just wish it had been longer. That aside, though, what’s here is very funny, very gross, and well worth reading. Novello’s title page states that this was the first and last printing, but you never know. Still, if you stumble across a copy of it at Half-Price Books, like I did, why tempt fate? Snatch it up! *** ½